February 15, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis tells Axios that the company has “experienced a 300% increase in retail theft from our stores since the pandemic began.”

There are a lot of possible contributing factors including a shortage of workers, which leaves more sections of stores unsupervised. Retailers say it is easier to sell stolen stuff online these days because people are shopping online more often.

As a result, stores are locking up more high-demand items, such as deodorant and even toothpaste.

The National Retail Federation says “gangs typically steal a mix of valuable high-end products and cheap but easier to fence everyday necessities.” The hottest items on the shoplifter’s must-steal list are:

  • Designer clothing (reported by 34% of retailers surveyed by NRF)
  • Laundry detergent, (21%)
  • Razors (20%)
  • Designer handbags (16%)
  • Deodorant (15%)
  • Laptops/tablets, high-end liquor, infant formula, painkillers and allergy medicine (tied at 13% each)

Axios says states are starting to muscle up their response to a crime that often gets a low priority response from police:

The retail industry is pressing Congress to pass the INFORM Act, which would require online marketplaces (like Amazon, eBay and Facebook) to verify sellers and provide contact information to buyers.

Attorneys general in states like California, Arizona and New Mexico are setting up anti-shoplifting task forces and looking at stricter laws on bail reform and felony thresholds.

District attorneys in cities like Chicago and New York are considering harsher measures against shoplifters.

The cost of shoplifting

The National Retail Federation recently issued a report that says:

“Retailers are seeing more cases and higher losses as organized crime continues to target stores, warehouses and cargo,” NRF Vice President for Research Development and Industry Analysis Mark Mathews said. “Retailers are investing millions to fight these crimes, but they need more help from law enforcement and, most of all, they need tougher laws that recognize the difference between petty shoplifting and professional crime for profit.”

The survey found 75 percent of loss prevention executives at a cross-section of large and mid-sized retail companies said ORC activity had increased in the past year, up from 68 percent last year. Losses averaged $719,548 per $1 billion in sales, a 2 percent increase from last year and the fifth year in a row that the figure topped the $700,000 mark.

Current losses compare with only $453,940 in 2015, and the increase of nearly 60 percent comes as many states have raised the threshold of what constitutes a felony, allowing criminals to steal more before being subject to stronger penalties than a misdemeanor.

The NRF says that is a key point. Retailers say they want police to take these low-dollar thefts seriously because they are adding up. Retailers cited relaxed law enforcement guidelines, changes in laws and decreased penalties among the causes for increased shoplifting. The NRF says:

Retailers are looking for more support from law enforcement, with only 64 percent saying they were satisfied with help received from local police (down from 84 percent last year), 55 percent with state authorities (down from 75 percent) and 50 percent with federal agents (down from 69 percent).

(Organized retail crime) often crosses state lines, and around 70 percent of those surveyed each of the previous three years had said a federal ORC law is needed. But with no action on ORC in Congress in a decade, the number fell to 62 percent this year.

Those in favor said a federal law is needed to influence response to major ORC problems not addressed by local police and to allow federal law enforcement to become involved without having to find other laws to fit the issue.

Retailers fight back

The rise in shoplifting may make it more difficult for shoppers to return stuff to stores. Again, the Retail Federation survey finds:

Stolen merchandise is sometimes returned for store credit, usually in the form of gift cards. Those cards can then be sold for cash, and 59 percent of retailers had found them for sale on websites, up from 51 percent last year.

To help fight return fraud, 52 percent of retailers had tightened or were planning to tighten return policies.

Requests for religious exemptions put faith leaders in a bind

Pope Francis delivers the Angelus noon prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Thousands of people have asked to be exempted from workplace vaccine mandates by claiming religious exemptions, but an Associated Press story quotes religious leaders from various beliefs who say that such requests put them in a bind because most major denominations do not oppose vaccinations. The AP story included these interesting passages:

From the Vatican, Pope Francis has defended the vaccines as “the most reasonable solution to the pandemic.” The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America declared categorically that its followers would not be offered religious exemptions. Robert Jeffress, the conservative pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas, voiced similar sentiments.

“Since there is no credible biblical argument against vaccines, we have refused to offer exemptions to the handful of people who have requested them,” Jeffress told The Associated Press via email. “People may have strong medical or political objections to government-mandated vaccines, but just because those objections are strongly felt does not elevate them to a religious belief that should be accommodated.”

“We have had many requests and have helped quite a number process their letter/request,” the Rev. Bob Stec of St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, said via email.

“Vaccination is not a universal obligation, and a person must obey the judgment of his or her own informed and certain God-given conscience,” says one of the letters provided by Stec. “If a Catholic comes to an informed and sure judgment in conscience that he or she should not receive a vaccine, then the Catholic Church acknowledges that the person … has the right to refuse the vaccine.”

It’s different in New Jersey’s Archdiocese of Newark, which has advised its priests not to support religious exemptions for their parishioners.

“I have been asked about six times and have declined,” said the Rev. Alexander Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Grace & St. Joseph Parish in Hoboken.

Post-COVID: Low student engagement is the No. 1 concern of educators

New data from Education Week is right in line with what my teacher friends are telling me. From public school teachers to college professors, I hear all the time about how difficult it is to get students engaged with learning. It is as if something switched off during the days of distance learning. Education Week explores recent survey data:

Getting students interested and excited about learning—a challenge that predates the pandemic—is harder than ever, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 630 teachers across the country.

Low student engagement is the most widespread problem teachers pointed to as an impediment to helping students reach grade level, with 68 percent of respondents citing it.

Teachers, counselors, and district leaders alike acknowledge that a lot of these challenges existed prior to the pandemic’s start. But moving between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning and adjusting to frequently changing COVID-19 protocols, have intensified and affected more students. While some educators have found ways to navigate the balancing act, they also recognize it won’t be an easy journey.

(Education Week)

The lingering long-COVID legacy

Everyone wants an easy glide path to end the pandemic, but it is unlikely to happen that way.

Even as new cases drop, even as hospitalizations fall, somewhere around 7 million Americans will suffer from so-called long-COVID symptoms for an unknown length of time.

A Star-Tribune editorial says:

A “conservative estimate” is that about 10% of those infected will suffer from long COVID symptoms, according to Dr. Greg Vanichkachorn, a Mayo occupational medicine specialist who is researching COVID’s long-term health impacts. Vanichkachorn testified earlier this month before the Minnesota House’s Health Finance and Policy Committee.

The doctor’s math shows the scale of the problem. When he spoke to legislators, 74.3 million cases of COVID had been reported in the United States. That translates to 7.4 million long-haul cases nationally. Of that subgroup, Vanichkachorn said about 2.2 million will be unable to return to work.

The estimate is just that: an educated guess. Part of the issue is that there is no clear definition of what constitutes long-COVID. But whatever the caseload turns out to be, a lot of people will need long-term medical care.

Because long COVID is an emerging condition, statistics remain elusive on how many people in Minnesota have been diagnosed with it. “Tracking long COVID continues to be challenging as there is not yet an agreed-upon case definition,” said Kate Murray, MDH program manager for Long COVID. “There wasn’t an official diagnosis code for providers until July 2021, and it still isn’t used consistently.”

The rising danger of preprint COVID-19 studies when time matters

Sometime soon we will have to have a serious talk about what our journalism standards should be when it comes to using preprint studies, which are studies that have not been peer-reviewed. Nature found:

A staggering 19,389 articles about COVID19 were shared in the first four months of the pandemic, a third of which were preprints, unvetted and unfiltered for all to see. That number would steadily grow, as scientists raced to find drugs to treat COVID-19, develop vaccines and wrangle with viral variants. The stakes had never been higher, swift action was vital, and pre-printing results aided rapid data sharing, which expedited research. But it also exposed the inner workings of the scientific process to a new audience and laid bare the best and worst of pandemic research.

Nature points out that these preprint reports are behind some of the worst disinformation rumors of the pandemic, and they also have included vitally important study outcomes that proved to be valuable and even lifesaving.  It leaves us questioning what peer-reviewed means these days:

In the case of hydroxychloroquine, a French study with “gross methodological shortcomings” accepted for publication in March 2020 less than a day after submission fueled global demand for a drug the authors claimed quashed viral load. Prescriptions for the anti-malaria drug skyrocketed, mostly among clinicians who had never prescribed it before, as presidents and pundits peddled the unproven treatment.

Nine months later, hydroxychloroquine was still being prescribed above normal levels, despite convincing evidence that it was useless for treating COVID-19. The paper was never retracted.

But it was a pair of papers published in, and retracted by, two of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine, that sent shock waves through the scientific community after investigations found that the large, real-world datasets were faked.

The Surgisphere scandal, as it became known, would leave academics questioning the state of science and peer review itself. “We have been led to believe that peer review as it currently stands is the stamp of approval of quality of research, and it is not always the case,” says Gowri Gopalakrishna, an epidemiologist at Amsterdam University Medical Center who has turned her attention to research integrity.

Denmark considers ending its vaccine program

COVID-19 headlines are starting to surprise me, like this one from Denmark. The country’s health authorities say they may “wind down” their vaccination program sometime this spring. 80% of Danes have gotten two shots and two-thirds have gotten boosters.

A journalist tries to save the reporter’s notebook

(First Draft Notebooks)

This is not an advertising pitch. Right now, as I type, my left arm is resting on a reporter’s notebook. But after more than a half-century of producing these notebooks, Stationer’s is no more. Nic Garcia, politics editor for The Des Moines Register and a hardcore reporter’s notebook user, is taking up the cause to keep the reporter’s notebook alive. Here is a story about the venture and the cause.

The story includes some of the colorful history of the reporter’s notebook, which tracks with a story I was told many years ago by John Seigenthaler, the legendary newspaperman from Nashville. He told me reporter’s notebooks have roots in the coverage of the civil rights movement, when angry townspeople snagged and ripped up the steno pads that journalists were using. Reporters cut the stenos in half, which then fit just the width of an inside pocket of a sport coat.

There is a bit of a debate over who invented the reporter’s notebook. Portage also lays claim to it. I have used a lot of theirs, too.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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